The Beginner’s Guide to Building Muscle and Strength

So you want to get bigger and stronger, like this guy (leopard print leotard optional).

Maybe you’ve always been the skinny guy and can’t gain weight to save your life.  Maybe you’re a bigger guy and you’d rather have broad shoulders than a broad waistline.  Maybe you’re a female, and you’ve realized that lifting weights with the right diet will give you that “toned” look that everybody is after.  Maybe you just want to be stronger and faster.

No matter who you are or what your starting point is, I want to help get you where you want to go.

Building muscle is something I’ve been obsessed with since high school (okay, not obsessed, but it’s where the majority of my fitness research and experience has taken me).  I’m not where I want to be yet in terms of strength and size, but I’m well on my way and I’ve definitely had a little bit of success over the past few years.  If you’re looking to start building muscle, getting bigger, and becoming stronger, these are the things you need to do:

  1. Lift heavy things
  2. Eat a diet based on your goals
  3. Rest

We have an entire course (The Nerd Fitness Academy) with bosses, leveling systems, quests, workouts, and a supportive community that virtually holds your hand through your next 12-18 months, but I’ll dig into the important stuff below too.

Lift Heavy Things

If you are going to build muscle, you’re going to need to lift heavy things. This means you’ll need a gym with a great free-weight section.  Body weight exercises can be fantastic for weight loss and keeping the muscle you already have, but if you’re serious about weight training you’ll need a gym with a squat rack, bench, barbells, and a spot to do pull ups, chin ups, and dips to be most efficient.

Got access to a decent gym?  Good, now we can started.

Because we’re looking to create functional strength and size, we’ll be doing lots of full-body routines with compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups at once.  They’re more efficient, they create solid growth and stimulation, and they will keep you safe.  Why is that?

Well, when you spend all of your time doing stupid isolation exercises on weight machines (ugh), you’re only working those specific muscles and not working any of your stabilizer muscles (because the machine is doing all of the stabilization work).  On the other hand, when you do compound exercises like barbell squats, you work pretty much EVERY muscle in your body, setting yourself up to be strong and injury free.

Stay away from machines, focus on dumbbells and barbell exercises.

Each of your routines should have one leg exercise, push exercise, pull exercise, and a core exercise:

That’s IT. Don’t worry about adding in any ridiculous machine shoulder shrugs, iso-chest flys, preacher bicep curls, calf-raises, whatever.  Learn these few exercises, get really good at them, and your entire body will get stronger and bigger.  Focus each week on adding more weight to each exercise.  For example, if you did 3 sets of 5 squats of 150 pounds this week, try for 3 sets of 5 squats of 155 pounds next week.

If you do that, you’ve gotten stronger.  Eat right, and you’ll get bigger too.

So what’s a sample routine?

Using the principles I’ve laid out in my “how to build a workout routine” article, here’s a routine I’ve created for myself recently:

  • Monday – Squats, Benchpress, Wide Grip Pull Ups, Planks
  • Wednesday – Deadlift, Overhead Press, Inverted Rows, Hanging Knee Raises
  • Friday – Weighted Lunges, Weighted Dips, Weighted Chin Ups, Reverse Crunches.

Each day has a leg exercise, push exercise, pull exercise, and some core work.  If you want to learn how to do all of the exercises above with perfect form, check out our Strength Training 101 series.

How many sets and reps should I do?

That depends on your goals. If you’re just interested in getting stronger, you can do 3-5 sets of 5 reps, with a focus on lifting heavier and heavier each week.  If you’re looking to add more size along with strength, mix up your rep ranges.  Sets of 5 reps will build compact explosive strength, while sets of 6-12 reps will build more size but less concentrated strength.

I try to mix it up. This week, I might do 3 sets of 5 reps for each exercise (other than the core exercises), adding enough weight to each exercise so that it’s incredibly taxing.  Next week, I’ll do four sets for each exercise, adding weight each time and doing less reps.  For example, I’d do 12 reps of an overhead press at 100 pounds, then 10 reps at 105 pounds, then 8 reps at 110 pounds, and finally 6 reps at 115 pounds.

The good news is that no matter which path you take (pure strength, size, or a mix of both), as long as you are adding weight each week you WILL be getting stronger.

ANY path will work, provided you are getting progressively stronger with it! So if you do 5 sets of 5 squats at 140 pounds this week, aim for 5 sets of 5 of 145 pounds next week. Or 3 sets of 10 at 100 pounds, then next week try for 3 sets of 10 at 105 pounds.

Get stronger, which is 20% of the puzzle. The other 80% is nutrition (which I cover later)!

Any other weight-lifting tips?

Warm-up before exercising – don’t walk into a gym, slap 45 pound plates on the bar, and then start your routine.  Get your heart rate up and muscles warm first by doing a dynamic warm-up of jumping jacks, lunges, bodyweight squats, hip raises, push ups, leg swings, jumps, etc.  After that, always start with doing a set or two of lifting JUST THE BAR.  Only then should you start adding weight for some warm-up sets before moving into your real sets.

Have focused form – if you’re doing a bodyweight squat incorrectly, you might develop bad habits.  However, if you do a squat incorrectly with 405 pounds on your shoulders, you could do some serious damage.  If you’re just starting out, check your ego at the door: start with a VERY light weight and make sure you are doing the exercise properly.  There is NO SHAME in starting with just the bar.  You can always add more weight next week if this week is too easy.

Stimulate, don’t annihilate – I try to always have one more rep left when I finish a set.  Some trainers will preach working your muscles to annihilation, but I think that’s just asking for an injury, poor form, and beyond-sore muscles.  Your muscles get built while resting, not in the gym, so don’t worry about destroying them completely each day you step in the gym – it’s not worth it.

Change up the time between sets – if you’re doing 3 sets of 5 reps of a really heavy weight, it’s okay to wait 3-5 minutes between sets – you’re focusing on pure strength here.  If you’re doing sets up in the 8-12 range, try to keep the time between sets around a minute or so.  This will affect your muscles in different ways.  Just be consistent between sets and when doing the same workout between weeks to track your progress.

Don’t overdo it – More does not mean better in weightlifting.  You don’t need to spend two hours in the gym, you don’t need to do 15 different kinds of chest exercises.  My routines last no longer than 45 minutes, I only do three or four sets (after warm up sets) for each exercise, and it’s enough to stimulate muscle growth.  Three routines a week is plenty too – you shouldn’t lift every day, as you need to give your muscles time to regrow bigger.  Less is more – just make your routines really intense and exhausting.

Write down everything – Keep a training journal, and write down exactly how many sets and reps you did for every exercise.  That way, you can compare how you did this time with how you did last time.  You’ll know how much more you need to lift this week to make sure you’re stronger than last week.

Okay what about diet?

If you’re skinny and trying to bulk up, this will be 90% of the battle. Don’t worry, I’ll address the guys/girls who need to slim down too.  The only way you can build size is if you’re running a calorie surplus, which means you’re eating more calories than you’re burning.  Translation: if you want to build muscle and size, you need to stuff your face.

If you’ve been lifting weights for a while “but can’t seem to gain weight,” then you are not eating enough – it’s that simple.

I thought I was one of those people who just could never gain weight…and then I learned it was all diet, started eating 4,000 calories a day, and I put on 18 pounds in 30 days.  Yeah, I wanted to throw up from always eating along with three Muscle Milk shakes a day, but it worked.  Looking back I would have done things differently (so many calories and so much sugar/carbs), but after 6 years of exercising without putting on any weight, it was great to see so much progress in such a short period of time.

4000 calories sounds freaking insane right? I know.  It makes eating a full-time job, as you’re always either cooking, eating, or cleaning up after yourself.  But if you really want to get bigger and you’re struggling to do so, then all of your effort is going to have to go into eating more, eating healthier, and eating ALL THE TIME.

Here are a few different techniques for weight gain:

Eat a lot of whatever – this was my first plan years ago: it’s cheapest, the fastest, but probably the least healthy.  Just make sure you get 200+ grams of protein a day and 3500+ calories in any way that you can: pasta, rice, pizza, milk, hamburgers, chicken, protein shakes, muscle milk shakes, whatever.  This is how I went from 162-180 pounds in 30 days. I’m not proud of how I ate, but it produced results and I remained healthy and strong.

Eat a lot of “healthy” stuff – I did this about three months ago and put on about 10 pounds in 30 days.  Lots of oatmeal, brown rice, chicken, my home-made big-ass shake, almond butter sandwiches on whole-grain wheat bread, beef, eggs, fruits, veggies, and some milk.  Still not optimal, but it works and is better for your insides than the previous method.  Still relatively cheap, as tubs of oats, brown rice, and bread are inexpensive and can add on a lot of calories quickly.  However, I’ve since pretty much cut out grains from my diet so this is no longer an option.

Eat Paleo – I’ve tried this over the past month, and despite my best efforts to GAIN weight I managed to lose five pounds (all of which was fat).  It’s certainly possible to gain weight on the paleo diet (try adding in three big-ass Primal Shakes per day), but it is tricky and very expensive to get 4000 calories of paleo-approved food daily.  LOTS of nuts, eggs, sweet potatoes, shots of olive oil, and yams along with tons of chicken, grass fed beef, fruit, and veggies.

GOMAD (Gallon of Milk a Day) – I cannot endorse this method just yet, as I haven’t tried it personally.  I’ll be a guinea pig for this next month though, once I get back from Peru, so until then attempt at your own risk.  Obviously this method will only work if you’re not lactose intolerant.  Oh, and it has to be whole milk.  You’ll definitely put on some fat, but you’ll build muscle and get really strong quickly – and then you’ll adjust the diet to thin out.

How many calories should I eat?

That’s going to depend on your situation – your age, how much you weigh now, how much you want to weigh, and how fast your metabolism is.  For some, just 2500 calories and strength training will be enough to build muscle.  For others, you might need to eat 4000+ calories in order to put on weight.  The only way to find out is to track your normal calorie intake for a few days, and then start adding on 500 extra calories per day for a week or two and see if you notice any changes.

Bottom line: If you don’t see any change, then you need to eat more.  Yes, it will feel excessive.  Yes, you will feel full all the time.  Yes, it’s a pain in the ass and expensive.  But if you really want to be bigger, then you are going to need to really dedicate yourself in the kitchen.  Unless you’re a genetic mutant, it’s incredibly tough to build muscle and strength without overloading your system with calories and nutrients.

Just keep eating.

Won’t all of this eating make me fat?  I don’t want to get bulky.

I get this question all the time in emails, usually from guys who are 6 feet tall and 130 pounds. Don’t worry, if you can’t gain weight now, putting on this extra weight is going to be great for you.  Yes, you will put on SOME fat along with the muscle you’re building if you’re running a calorie surplus.  This is why picking the right amount of calories per day is important.

If you can build muscle at 3000 calories, but you’re eating 4000 calories, you’ll put on a pound or two of fat per week along with your muscle.  However, if you need to eat 4000 calories to build muscle and you’re only eating 3000, you won’t see any changes.  Everybody is different, so you need to experiment and find out what works best for you.

Once you get to your desired weight (actually, aim for about 10-15 pounds heavier than your goal weight), you can scale back the calories, add in some extra sprints to the end of your workout, and keep lifting heavy – the muscle will remain, the fat will disappear, and you’ll be left with the body you want.

I’m not skinny, I need to LOSE weight – what’s different for me?

Well, what do you want to do first, build muscle or lose weight?

If you want to get bigger and stronger, you have to eat a calorie surplus, but eat more HEALTHY stuff while being diligent with your workouts.  If you’re overweight and out of shape, you’re probably already running a calorie surplus – you just need to start lifting and make smarter decisions on what you eat!  After you get to a point where you’re happy with your strength and size, start running a calorie deficit by eating less, add in some sprints to the end of your workout, and you’ll thin out while maintaining your muscle mass.

If you’re just looking to lose weight and don’t want bigger muscles, you’re going to want to still LIFT HEAVY, and run a slight calorie deficit on a daily basis.  You won’t be building more muscle, but you’ll be maintaining the muscle you have (while getting stronger) and burning the fat in your system.  Bigger guys and girls tend to actually have really strong legs (from carrying around all of that extra weight), so as you lose fat your muscles will start to pop out.  Just keep lifting heavy and the body you want will stop hiding under all of that fat.

When lifting weights to lose weight, don’t worry so much about the scale; instead keep an eye on your body composition (photos really help for this). Adjust your calorie intake until you can find a good balance – focus on eating high quality food (paleo is a great method to build strength while losing fat) and getting stronger with each workout.

If you want to speed up your fat loss, I’d recommend adding in some intervals/sprints at the end of your workouts or on your off days. Notice I said sprints or intervals and not long hours of cardio.  Here’s why.

What about rest?

If you’re skinny and trying to bulk up, avoid cardio like the plague. Why?  Take a look at the best marathon runners in the world – they look like a stiff breeze would knock them over.  Now take a look at Usain Bolt, the best sprinter in the world – tons of muscle, power, and a body to envy.  I have nothing against people who run all the time and love to run marathons/half-marathons – as long as you’re active I’m all for it.  I’m just telling you that if you want to build muscle as quickly and efficiently as possible, cardio is the enemy.

I will admit that I’m biased against chronic cardio, but mostly because it bores me! You can be far more effective when you focused on getting stronger and only do ‘cardio’ on things you enjoy – after all, your success will largely depend on your nutrition, NOT your cardio!

I spend three days a week in the gym, with each workout clocking in at 45 minutes.  I go for long walks on my off days along with a day of sprints to stay active, but I know that my muscles get built while I’m resting, not when I’m working out.  I really focus in on my workouts to make them as exhausting as possible, and then I give my body ample time to recover (while eating enough calories to produce a surplus).

If you’re lifting heavy, and eating enough, make sure you’re also getting enough sleep! 5-6 hours a night isn’t going to cut it – you need to get at leas 8-9 hours of sleep per night for optimal muscle-building.  Take naps too if you have the opportunity.  Sleep needs to become a priority.

If you’re a big guy/girl trying to slim down, a little extra cardio might speed up your fat loss, but a lot of it might cause you to lose the muscle you already have.  Don’t worry about going for 10 mile runs on your off days – do 20-30 minutes of intervals or go run hill sprints in your park.  The weight will come off more slowly, but you’ll only be losing fat, not fat AND muscle.

Once you hit your goal weight and target amount of muscle mass, I’d recommend adding back in some cardio for your overall conditioning, but keep it varied (sprints and intervals).  The focus is to keep building explosive muscle and not long, slow, boring muscle.

If you love going for long runs and aren’t going to give that up, I’m not gonna stop you. Just know that the long hours of cardio will severely inhibit your progress on building strength and size.

What Say You?

As I stated, building functional strength and muscle will be the focus of the next e-book here on Nerd Fitness, but this is a basic overview to get ya started. It really boils down to a few major things: lift heavy, eat lots of good food, and rest.  Simple to understand, tough to implement. Trust me, I know – I’ve been battling this for the past decade 🙂

So did I miss anything? Do we have any strength building success stories?  People who are skinny struggling to bulk up?  Big guys who lost weight and got stronger while lifting weights?  Post your questions in the comments and I’ll go ahead and answer them.

Let’s hear your strength and muscle stories!

-Steve

PS: If you’re somebody that just says “Steve, tell me exactly what to do and what to eat, I’d recommend checking out our flagship course, The Nerd Fitness Academy. It holds your hands through the first 12 months of your fitness journey, along with boss battles, workout plans, a level-system for your diet, and a supportive private community to cheer you on.

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    What if I lost a lot of weight in my face. How can I gain that back? Fyi I worked as a Mail Carrier for 6mos. I noticed it after my 3rd month.

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  • Alexander Christensen

    hey Steve seems like a great guide but if i just wanna loose some weight (ofcourse gain muscle) but focusing on loosing weight what should i do? and i don’t really have acces to a gym or well only a minor one wich only have basic equitment . So i can’t do dips, or a “safe” benchpress or pull ups. What can i do to loose weight with the stuff i have? and what else can i do to loose weight as fast as possible

    currently weight 160 pounds lost 40 pounds over 2014 been running, changing and i began doing workouts in december (just stuff i googled didn’t really read a proper guide or actaully gain much from my workouts) my goal is to reach atleast 130 pounds

    can you please help me? i have a really big problem with my physical appereance and some health issues would be like charity just for a bro 🙂

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    Hi Steve,

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  • Keri Johnson

    I’m a 35 year old female, I am mainly looking to gain muscle and strength, I do probably have a few pounds of fat (about 5lbs) I wouldn’t mind losing, (mainly around my midsection) but otherwise I am good with my overall size. I have been doing crossfit for almost a year now and I am loving the results i am seeing. I used to only run, but lifting has opened up a whole new world for me and I am loving it. As an added bonus, I am also a better runner! Anyways, I have no idea how many calories a day I eat now, I’m guessing somewhere around 1500 a day, I just try to focus on keeping it clean. I have never tried to gain before, so I really don’t know what weight I want to be at, I am currently 140 lbs at 5’5″. My main goal is to be able to lift heavier, for that I need the strength, aka muscles.

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  • Bill Wilson

    Lift heavy, eat lots of food and rest. Good tips for beginners for sure. Thanks for sharing!

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    I joined weight lifting a while back,i have a focus day for each muscle in a week…now my issue would be i eat quite an amount after every work out..I am getting some definition on my muscle…slowly but surely…how else should i intense my work outs?

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    How are you going to get stronger in the long run if your body doesn’t have the calories to repair the muscle damage you have done and build new, larger muscles?

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    It’s not complicated at all:

    1) Lift heavy weights (squat, deadlift, press, row, bench press) three times a week. Try to put more weight on the bar each time.
    2) Eat rich food like steak, milk and eggs until you are full.
    3) Get plenty of rest.

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  • Dave Chavez

    Hi Steve.
    Good day,

    I am Dave Chavez from the Philipines. I am 5’9 in height & May weigth is 220 lbs with a bigger belly. I normally eat 7-8 cups of rice a day and that a starting to workout i reduce to 1-2 rice a day max. Am starting a diet & weigthlifting a month ago. Am starting to lose wright but ive notice
    That am not gaining enough muscle even though ive train hard. May work routine 6 days a week and sunday rest, this is because am trying to loose my belly badly.

    Question: how to gain muscle without gaining weight on may belly.

    Thank you and hope to hear from you soon.

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  • Christopher Riggs

    Hey Steve I really liked your article and I am going to use the tips you gave to increase mass. But I do have a few questions and was wondering if you could just give me a few quick answers. I am a big guy. I started this year at 379 and have changed my diet and I started working out. Mainly cardio(yuck) but i wanted to drop weight so now Im down to 326 and am starting a lifting program. How do i determine what weight to start lifting at for muscle mass grow. I dont want to get huge(hulk) but I do want some good size. Could really use your help. Thanks and hope to hear from you soon.

  • Shehroz Khan

    Awesome article ! No matter you are a beginner or pro Bench press, dead lifts and squats are the keys to build muscle .

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  • John Weatherby

    One thing I would add if you have a lot of body fat particularly in the 30%+ range you can build muscle and lose fat on even 2,000 calories a day. You have to have adequate protein at least 1 g per lean body weight but it can be done. Once you fall into the 20% percents it gets harder. In my experience when I have been in the obese range the body doesn’t have a problem using the stores up to build if there is adequate protein. While I haven’t tried I have seen a protein sparing modified fast can build or maintain muscle for those in the obese range. I think the obese don’t have a problem filling the caloric deficit with fat burning. It becomes harder when you get into more normal ranges.

    I tend to go more toward Mark Sisson’s recommendations of 1 g of protein per pound of lean mass. The 1 or 2 g per body weight has always been high for me causing dehydration which leads to serious calf cramps. I can’t confirm Rippetoe’s statement but he tends to think 20% bodyweight is best for lifting.

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  • Mike

    I was looking forward to reading this article, until I got to the 2nd paragraph that said, “Building muscle is something I’ve been obsessed with since high school. I’m not where I want to be yet in terms of strength and size, but I’m well on my way and I’ve definitely had a little bit of success over the past few years.”

    Obsessed with building muscle, yet has only had “a little bit of success, over the past few years”?

    A few YEARS of muscle building obsession, with only a “little bit of success”?

    Sorry, I just had to stop reading at that point.

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  • Thomas

    You definitely have some good info but some things i am not so sure about, for example when you were talking about how body-weight exercises are a good way to lose fat. If you just look on the internet their are people out there who have gotten pretty big only or mostly through body-weight exercises. And the part where you said you have had a little bit of success, why would you even say that it makes you look like you don’t really know what your talking about. Instead say that you have improved over the years. Don’t say you had a little bit of success.